On the rise of Jewish fundamentalism in Israel

By Shalom Boguslavsky

Over the past decade or so, the religious Zionists and the ultra-Orthodox have joined forces to push for an Arab-free greater land of Israel. The racist ideas of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, once considered marginal, have gained new power as they are expressed by important ultra-Orthodox rabbis with wide authority in religious matters. With this authority comes a dangerous new fundamentalism that is gaining increasing political power in Israel.

On the rise of Jewish fundamentalism in Israel
Ultra-Orthodox Jews demonstrating against a parking lot in Jerusalem (photo: Oren Ziv/activestills.org)

In the early 1950s, soon after Israel declared its independence, a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews, a segment whose recognition of the secular state of Israel and its pretension of being a “Jewish state” was anything but taken for granted, decided to make their first move toward turning the young state into a full theocracy.
There was only a few of them, and their terrorism was mostly symbolic. They walked the streets of Jerusalem during the Sabbath, marked cars that had been used on the day of rest and later torched them. They also torched a non-kosher butcher’s shop, bombed a restaurant and stockpiled arms before they were arrested.

One of their leaders was Mordechai Eliyahu, who became later not only the Chief Rabbi of Israel, but also, despite his Haredi origins, an influential leader for the religious-Zionist sector. He was the driving force of the “settling in the hearts” doctrine, which from the 1990’s sent groups of young idealists from the settlements in the territories to start communities in Israel proper. Most of them were located in the impoverished development towns and in the “mixed” towns, where Jews and Arabs live together uneasily, and their goal was to spread an ideology of Jewish supremacy and a vision of the messianic role of the state of Israel.

More than 100,000 people attended Rabbi Eliyahu’s funeral last June. He was buried with a “court order” issued by a group of kabbalists ordering God  himself to send the messiah ASAP. Eliyahu was known as a mystic, as was his father before him and his son, Shmuel, after him. His reputation as a miracle worker is cultivated by his son and his followers; it is used in the service of the younger Eliyahu’s attempt to take his father’s place as leader of the rising Jewish fundamentalism.

When I say “fundamentalism” I don’t mean a mere extremism, and I don’t use the word because it sounds negative and frightening. The explosive cocktail cooked up by Eliyahu, the father and the son, is the same as the more-familiar Muslim fundamentalism, or Islamism. It is the same combination of hard-line religion, rejection of modern and Western ideas, ultra-nationalism and popular mysticism, as a means of forming a movement that is essentially contemporary and political, with revolutionary goals. As we’ll see, this one seems to be a distinguishable new player in the political game.

Many people, especially outside of Israel, tend to assume that religious and political extremism go hand in hand. But in fact, the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) sector’s classic approach towards Jewish nationalism varies from total rejection to partial co-existence based on mutual interest.

The religious Zionists – though Orthodox and not, God forbid, Reform Jews   – hold a softer, more open to debate approach to matters of faith. They see the state of Israel as part of a divine plan for redemption and not, as the Haredim do, a maverick secular project. And they have a high esteem for the secular nationalists, even though they believe the latter do not understand Jewish nationalism’s religious core. Traditionally, they are middle class, educated and modern people.

Or so it used to be, for this classic division has been shaken over the last two decades. Anew concept, combining the worst of the two segments, has emerged.
The ultra-Orthodox communities have become bigger and more involved in Israeli life. One of the accelerators was the appearance of the Shas party in the mid 1980’s. It is a sectarian, Sephardic party whose voters are “traditional” or “conservative” but the leadership is ultra-Orthodox. The Sephardic Jews don’t have a clear-cut division between “religious” and “secular” people as the Ashkenazi European Jews have. Their model of a hard-line leadership with a message that is relevant for the entire religious spectrum was adopted, and in a way evolved from the same school (Porat-Yosef Yeshiva in Jerusalem) but without the traditional characteristics of moderation, by the new fundamentalism.

On the other side, the classic religious Zionist doctrine that sees a perfect harmony and unity between the Jewish faith, people, nationality, state and the land of Israel was shattered on the rocks of reality. The victory of 1967 was, for them, a clear sign of a new phase, and a near fulfillment of the divine plan. They’ve abandoned their traditional role as a sidekick of secular nationalism, taking the role of a revolutionary vanguard. They’ve put all their effort, all their spiritual and political powers into the project of settling the occupied territories.

But oddly enough, the divine plan suffered from setbacks. First was the evacuation of Sinai, then the Oslo agreements and finally the evacuation of thousands of settlers from Gaza during the disengagement of 2005. They felt betrayed; things weren’t happening the way they’re supposed to, the public wasn’t committed to their revolution. They’ve grown to understand that the harmony between religious and secular nationalism no longer exists.

The identity crisis of religious Zionism led to many different phenomena. In fact, it is no longer true to call it a “sector”. Two main new phenomena are the growth amongst them in democratic, liberal and feminist tendencies on the one hand, and the attempts to form a “neo-con” coalition between the “old boys’ club” leadership and the secular right wing, based on a renewed, narrow and obligatory definition Zionism on the other.

And then again, there are those who have lost their faith in the secular democratic state following its “betrayal” during the disengagement from Gaza, but didn’t give up their nationalism.

Religious Zionism has always been in a defensive, apologetic position towards the ultra-Orthodox rabbis, who preached a much more ascetic religious way of life than theirs. In Orthodox Judaism, more ascetic means more pious. The religious Zionists had to make excuses and explain that the alliance with the secular public and state has a religious merit that justifies getting their hands dirty by participating in impure secular life.
For those who no longer saw the point in doing that, but still didn’t want to give up their nationalism, the appearance of Haredi rabbis were as ultra-nationalist as they were was the natural answer.

These rabbis offered a new, exciting and coherent vision, free from the entangled, compromising, trying to please style of the old school religious Zionism. The model of the haredi rabbi, who has much more spiritual authority  than his Zionist equivalent, has already been accepted following the leadership of Mordechi Eliyahu, who also imitated the popular anti-elitist style of Shas. So you have leaders whose opinions are “the word of the Torah. They are regarded as truth-tellers who do not apologize or compromise. And some of them can make miracles.

Shmuel Eliyahu is not the best known or even the most important among those rabbis. In a way, he is an outsider: unlike most of his peers, he does not belong to Chabad or live in a settlement. But his mix of Haredi-like hard-line faith with militant religious ultra-nationalism and popular Shas-style conduct might be the most effective. He is more charismatic than the others – he has his father’s reputation, and he presents himself as someone involved in secret mystical activity. He also holds an official position as a civil servant on the behalf of the state of Israel. He is the Chief Rabbi of the holy town of Safed, an important spiritual and educational center for the ultra-Orthodox.

As the Chief Rabbi of Safed, who lives off the tax-payer’s shekel, he leads an illegal campaign to cleanse the towns of Arabs –  mostly students who study in the local academic college.

Shmuel Eliyahu isn’t the crazy-looking loud demagogue who excites the masses with hate rhetoric, as you might expect a fundamentalist to be. He is someone who can visit an apartment of three Bedouin students –  soon  after their Jewish landlord, an 86 year-old veteran who fought in the battle on Safed in 1948 received death threats following Eliyahu’s call to avoid landing apartments to Arabs – and shake their hands, have some coffee and calmly explain why they shouldn’t be allowed to live and study in Safed, or for that matter, in the land of Israel in general.

Eliyahu’s ideas have three parallel levels: “practical”, “mystical” and “national. At the practical level, he simply capitalizes on fear. The fear of terrorism, of the transformation of the town’s character, and most of all, the fear of romantic relationships between Jewish girls and Arab men.

Such relations aren’t common enough to feed the fear of assimilation. But for the locals, sexual harassment of girls by Arab youth is a real issue. I can’t say it does not happen. As young men coming from conservative, highly patriarchal society, currently not under the supervision of their community, many of them indeed do that a lot. But Eliyahu couldn’t care less about women’s safety and human dignity. He wouldn’t rally an assembly of rabbis to fight sexual harassment by men from his own community (and it’s common enough there as well). He doesn’t mind Jews doing it and his approach to women’s rights is pretty much medieval.

Nor is it merely the usual concept of women as the collective property of the men of the tribe, common to all racist groups in every time and place using the slogan “protect our women”. For him, the land of Israel itself is a woman that belongs, and as such must be conquered, to the Jewish men. In his mind, there is a deep spiritual link between controlling the women of the tribe and controlling the land of the tribe, the land that belongs to the tribe because God said so.

What he does in Safed, although meeting the everyday fears of his community, is actually just a teaser and a model of the thing he wants to happen in the entire greater land of Israel. Many other rabbis joined Eliyahu and did the same. Recently, 50 rabbis, most of them civil servants as well, issued a threat of excommunication for whoever rents an apartment to non Jews.

He does not mind the presence of Arabs in the holy land as such, but they must accept the supremacy of the “chosen people” and their exclusive ownership of the land. If they do that, they can live in their communities as they wish, as long they stay out of the way. Otherwise, they can move to an Arab country of their choice. It’s an exact parallel to the doctrine of Hamas and other Muslin fundamentalist groups. They see Palestine as waqf, a property dedicated to Allah. Infidels are allowed to live there, but only as dhimmi, a protected but underprivileged resident, a guest whose presence is tolerated, as long as he knows his place.

These ideas aren’t new. In fact, they are a cliché. I’d say that many, if not most of the people in Israel hold at least some of them to some extent, often being put in other words. But still, an undercurrent, or even plain belief in all that when it is “softened” and limited by ideas of modern democracy, practical considerations or claims that such things would become a reality only in an ideal world, when God will send the messiah is one thing. The fundamentalists don’t see any reason to soften anything, and can’t see why it shouldn’t happen right here and now. That’s what makes them fundamentalist, isn’t it?

It remains to be seen how dangerous and influential the new fundamentalism is, but a number of things make me worry: first, unlike Rabbi Meir Kahane, who said pretty much the same things, Eliyahu is seen as a legitimate, widely accepted, distinguished religious leader. Second, his mad stories about his father, like the one that claims he sent the biblical matriarch Rachel to reveal herself to soldiers in Gaza and to save them from booby-traps, or the implication his father was supposed to be the messiah, if he hadn’t died too soon, barely lift an eyebrow any more. Not much sanity has left in the public discourse now days. Third, Eliyahu and others like him focus their propaganda inside and around the army, presenting it as “supporting our soldiers”. And the army is almost sacred here, besides being a central route for social mobilization and mainstreaming. And fourth, he seems to be aiming for the position of the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem.

If he succeeds in pulling off his act in Jerusalem, he might torch the whole country, if not the region. Thus, he will be following the footsteps of earlier messianic radicals who believed that by creating a mega-crisis, not only will they force the people to unite around their flag, but they will force God to intervene and save his chosen people. I wish it was going too far to expect such a move – but we are talking about someone who just a while ago sent such a demand to God by his father’s corpse – and did so with 100,000 people watching.

Shalom Boguslavsky was born in Russia in 1976, has been living in Jerusalem since 1981, studies history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and makes his living as a group leader, facilitating discussions about Jewish-Israeli identity, dialogue & conflict management.